The Scene Is Now
The Oily Years (1983-1993)
Since underground music has crawled into the limelight we’ve witnessed a steady stream of yobbos smearing dirt on their mugs, calling it credibility, and quickly taking the plush seat offered by the fat man with the fat cigar and the fat contract. The line between mainstream and underground has become more blurred, and the intentions behind music that’s supposedly personal have become blatant appeals to commerce. While acts still manage to operate well outside the mainstream, most of those with anything more than a limited appeal seem to tarnish themselves enough to stay clear of fame’s bright lights. This wasn’t always so. A pair of CDs by the Embarrassment and the Scene Is Now, bands spawned in the wake of punk rock, offer a vivid look at a not-so-distant past when distinctive music existed without the music industry breathing down bands’ necks.
Prior to the indie-rock explosion of the late 80s and early 90s, the Embarrassment were the epitome of musical outsiders. Bespectacled and decidedly (and naturally) nerdish more than a decade before the look became standard for indie rockers, the Embarrassment played idiosyncratic, highly personal music that made way for the successes of groups like R.E.M. and Nirvana that went against the grain and ascended from regional favorites to national stardom. But this shift never happened for the Embarrassment, whose sounds were too raw and jagged during a period when punk was considered amusingly freakish and the prevailing winds blew in chart toppers like Foreigner, Journey, and Michael Jackson. The group’s few records were released on tiny labels not so they could avoid street cred–hardly a concept in the midwest in 1978–but because no one else would release them.
Stuck in Lawrence, Kansas, boyhood chums John Nichols, Bill Goffrier, and Brent Giessmann listened to the standard proto-punk outfits like the Stooges, Velvet Underground, and the Ramones but found liberation with the Sex Pistols. At art school Giessmann met Ron Klaus, who joined the inseparable trio to start the Embarrassment. The recently issued double CD Heyday 1979-83 compiles the band’s entire official output–a pair of EPs as well as several posthumous full-length collections of previously issued and unreleased material (they never made a proper album)–as well as a full disk of assorted rarities. The CD offers a potent testimonial to the quartet’s well-contained albeit herky-jerky aggression, quirky melodic skills, and humorous lyrics soaked with wordplay. The band’s provocative alloy of punk drive and pop songcraft was uncommon if not altogether unheard of at the time, but its legacy can be felt in acts as disparate as the Ass Ponys, Pavement, the Volcano Suns, and Freedy Johnston, to name a few. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that almost every loud indie band with a concern for hooks has a bit of the Embarrassment in them, even if the influence is so indirect that they’ve never even heard the group.
The Embarrassment’s galvanizing first single, “Sex Drive,” set the stage for the band’s future accomplishments. Amid Giessmann’s furious rhythmic attack and Goffrier’s raw, if a wee bit sloppy guitar shards, an arching hook delivered a clever car metaphor for sexual frustration:
Jim took the bus, the engine is missin’
He drives for the lust of Sarah’s kissin’
If Jim gets his way and the bus makes the trip
He’ll have a highway lay with none of her lip
Even better was the combo’s eponymous 1981 debut EP. A song like “Celebrity Art Party” conveyed their unpretentious midwest wisdom with plenty of dry humor. Over a hard shuffling rhythm and the catchy weave of Goffrier’s meaty guitar and Klaus’s limber bass, Nichols spits out “Narcissistic party, artistic party” with sardonic disgust and one great big hook. Their follow-up, 1983’s Death Travels West, a weird, somewhat loose concept album about America’s history as told on a road trip, was considerably darker both lyrically and musically. The hooks weren’t so chirpy and the lyrics were more elliptical. In the spring of 1983 they recorded seven tunes that offered more melodic verve, harmonic grace, and general musical tightness than anything they’d done before, but not long afterward they threw in the towel and decided to pursue other endeavors. Goffrier and Giessmann moved to Boston and joined Big Dipper–a less urgent and edgy but more successful Embarrassment–and the Del Fuegos, respectively. Occasional reunion gigs in their hometown eventually led to a brief comeback that resulted in 1990’s decent though somewhat uninspired God Help Us.
The band sang sophisticated songs about subjects familiar to them with a rough-hewn delivery and lots of charm, from celebrating Elizabeth Montgomery’s looks and accomplishments and mourning her downfall (“We all remember Bewitched, she was beautiful then” from “Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face”), to chronicling the spooky sensations of a man detached from reality (“I sit on the couch, it seems to breathe” from “The Man With the Extra-Special Eyes”). They dripped geek appeal long before it was marketable, but they weren’t losers; they made smart, daring, and confident music. (Witness their “Hip and Well Read.”) Ignited by the genuine, rebellious spirit of rock, their music holds up, even gains charisma, while stuff that was popular at the time–the alternative hits were by foppish British combos like Haircut 100 and A Flock of Seagulls–has become laughable. The potential for success and fame that taints many a developing band today wasn’t a concern for the Embarrassment.
New York’s the Scene Is Now also operated on the fringe. The Oily Years (1983-1993) offers a nice distillation of their four albums, effectively striking at their expansive, quirky essence. Best known, if known at all, for writing the song “Yellow Sarong”–which Yo La Tengo popularized on their 1990 album of covers, Fakebook–the Scene Is Now were unapologetic intellectual dilettantes with extraordinarily literate, humorous, postmodern lyrics borrowing from such sources as Voltaire, Shakespeare, Aristophanes, William Blake, Donald Barthelme, and Mao Tse-tung. The band’s weirdness was wedded to a natural penchant for strong hooks, and if listeners could surrender themselves to the group’s out-of-tune wailing instrumental attack, and sometimes slapdash production–a minor hurdle, really–the rewards were bountiful and often beautiful. Their music’s construction bore a resemblance to Captain Beefheart’s, though sonically it was much different; disjointed and raw on the surface, but guided by a masterful, complex architectural plan, the multilayered music seems to grow in richness with each listening.
The combo grew out of the tail end of New York’s infamous no-wave scene. Rooted in hopelessly obscure bands like Information and Blinding Headache, the combo’s members used the Scene Is Now as a creative outlet, not a vehicle to success. Without a thought about parlaying itself into a business, the band was able to retain its purity. The worlds in which the musicians functioned outside the band partially explain the diverse references in their music. Chris Nelson also played with great Marxist folk punks Mofungo, Dick Champ translated classical Greek and Latin texts, and Susie Timmons, an early member, was a poet. Tracing the band’s history from their first single, “1150 Lbs.,” to tunes that occupied their final album, Shotgun Wedding (which was released only on cassette due to a lack of funds), it’s impossible to ignore their amazing growth. Their early raggedness became increasingly smooth–their musicianship and production improved, but at the music’s heart a dichotomy between accessibility and tension remained. In part this was because Nelson’s quavery wail would never go down easy, but while the Scene Is Now channeled in pop melodies their artistic ambitions prevented them from being merely a pop band. As breezy as tunes like “Dinah Shore” and the fantastic “Moonlight Broil” are, there is an unsettling, off-kilter core to each song.
A tune like “Digest” moves with a gentle swing, effervescent layers of guitar forming an airy lattice over top, but the lyrics deliver visions of urban decay and isolated bits of autobiography. “If Justice Hides” is representative of the band’s tendency to set almost academic-sounding lyrics amid pop classicism; Nelson croons, “There’s politics in every song / Try and sing one / That has no meaning / La di da da da” with a melodic scheme that’s more indebted to Gershwin than anyone writing in the last four decades. Even when the topic is decidedly lighter, like when Nelson recalls his Minneapolis roots in “First Avenue,” the band’s occasional obtuseness provides a refreshing antidote to the usual banality of pop music. While their music would have no more of a commercial chance now than it had a decade ago, to those with adventurous ears it remains an engaging, renewable treasure trove. As the word “alternative” now conveys as much meaning as the word “boo,” the Scene Is Now and the Embarrassment stand for something considerably more resonant than a marketing term; the motivation behind their music remains palpably personal and genuine.